HER SLENDER FRAME trudged to towards Challenge Hostel. Hanging from her right shoulder was her backpack with a large bone sticking out of it. Held in her left hand was a massive, worn out anatomy textbook with a half-torn cover. The look on her face screamed of exhaustion. It was 6:30 p.m. and she had been up since 6 a.m. As she walked through the dorm gate, her complexion darkened by dust and sweat, she heard Mrs. Alade’s voice welcome her. Regina waved at her with a tired smile. She was Mrs. Alade’s favourite; the first class student with ‘discipline and home training.’ She climbed up the stairs to the third floor only to discover her room was locked. All her roommates were not around. She felt as though she couldn’t generate the strength to go back downstairs, so she sat on the floor by the door, reached for her phone and opened her BBM. HolluwaNeeyeeBoss had changed his display picture to a heavily edited photo of himself standing by a small cluster of Asian men at the plaza who seem oblivious to his existence. HRM Queen Sato had changed her personal message to ‘God luv is daughter Osato. #QueenSato say so.’ She tucked her phone back into her pocket. “Regina, sorry oh. Don’t worry, all this first class stress will be worth it at the end of the day,” said the computer science girl next door who was heading out. Regina sensed the mockery in her tone. She brought out her phone again to text Hakeem. She was going to send him a message about the stressful day she had, but something silly moved her to type something else: BIG PRICK. Before she could convince herself not to send it, she did. She was amazed at her audacity to send something so mundane, so irreverent, but she strangely found it was funny and hoped he would too. Seconds later, he replied: SOFT BREAST. A wide grin formed across her face. Since the Sunday night they did it for the first time, they had done it three more times. As she began to remember how he sucked her earlobes two nights earlier, she saw Jumoke approaching with jingling keys and a can of Pringles.
Jumoke looked at the fibula laying on the plastic table in Regina’s corner with undesired amazement. “So this is a real human bone?” she asked again, as though not convinced by what Regina had told her. “Can’t you people just use fake bones for your practicals or something. Abeg, I can’t let evil spirit appear in my dream this night,” Jumoke added. It was just the two of them in the room. Regina, who had bathed and lay limp on her mattress, took a deep breath and let her mind drift off into her past where her vicious demons came to life.
A ten year-old Regina watched her sister jerk uncontrollably and stiffen in the house. Eghoghon’s eyes had rolled into her skull and foam was bubbling out of her mouth. A shaman came to the house in the night and told her father that Eghoghon’s death, just like Justina’s, was his wife’s fault. In the morning, Aunty Ejemhen, Regina’s barren step mother, was literally kicked out of the house. It was what needed to be done to end the cycle of death in the house, the shaman told. Truly, death evaded the house in the coming years. The curse was thought to be broken, until Regina fell into a deep fever. The shaman came back to the house and told her father she was from water. He warned her father to dispense of her, that her spirit would bring ruin to the house. So, just like he did Aunty Ejemhen, he chased her away from the house. For four days, Regina roamed Benin aimlessly, sleeping wherever the sun deserted her. On the fourth night, the night before the day her biological mother’s step brother found her, a vagrant emerged from the shadows and had his way with her. Twelve years later, the day before the morning she met Hakeem, the day the first rain of the year fell in Benin, she went back to the street with the house. Her shrunken father, sunken in his armchair, watched her walk past the house. Her eyes met his. After a long stare, he retreated into his sulk. He was all alone, oblivious to his close encounter with his own daughter, at the front of the house.
Mr. Ikpomwosa was undecided on whether or not to use the class attendance as part of continuous assessment for the course he taught. An attempt to get a public concensus turned into a chorus of discordant voices. “Quiet!” He turned to Regina and asked her, “What do you think, scholar?” The perpetual class-goers murmured their approval of the idea. The ones with the poor attendance records were edgy because of whose mercy the lecturer had placed their fates. “I think we should use it,” she replied. “So it’s settled,” said Mr. Ikpomwosa without thought. After the class, Bukky walked up to Regina, with a confidence prepared for battle, and said, “selfish bitch.” Ordinarily, Regina ignored potentially violent confrontations, but something unidentified had irked her earlier that day. Perhaps, it was the weight of the impending exams on her psyche, or her period which had started that morning. “Well, if you had been coming to class, I bet you wouldn’t be complaining,” she responded. “We will see where all this your over-seriousness will take you in life. Loner,” Bukky said with a smugness, which prompted Regina to say, “And we will also see where all this your dick-sucking will take you in life. Whore.” Regina felt Bukky’s palm sting her delicate cheek. Before she could get a grip of herself, she was already pushed up against a wall. She felt a hundred fists pounding her at the same time. It was just Bukky, though. Ese and Natasha valiantly tried to pull Bukky away, but Regina had grabbed chunks of her weave with both hands, and had begun to tug violently. Bukky was squealing in pain, screaming “my hair, my hair!” An intense, sadistic look consumed Regina’s face that made her almost unrecognisable. After a coalition managed to pull Bukky free, Regina stood where she was. Her braids were all over the place, her shirt was rumpled, and her chest was heaving. Suddenly, she felt herself collapse into deep, remorseful tears. She was overwhelmed. She ran out of the class, while Ese’s long limbs tried to keep up behind her.
Hakeem had barely settled into his seat when he got a text on his phone: your father chased me out. its a long story. am at my sister’s place. He felt his heart skip a beat. “Sir, please, there’s somewhere I need to be now. It’s an emergency.””No, sit down. It’s too early for excuses,” responded Mr. Donaldson. Hakeem stood up and headed for the door. “If you leave this class right now, Yakubu, don’t bother coming back. Ever,” warned Mr. Donaldson with a stern face. Hakeem looked at him, looked away, said “I’m sorry,” and walked out. He went to his apartment and packed a few of his belongings into his backpack before heading to the car park. He wondered about what could have possibly caused the conflict between his parents. Things seemed to be going well enough the last time he checked. A few hours into the journey, he got a text from Regina whose number had previously been unreachable: I got into a fight. I think something is wrong with me. He felt his chest tighten again. The bus descended down the slopey tar road, and he momentarily felt his body drop from underneath his soul.
Mr. Ahmadu asked about Mrs. Yakubu a little too eagerly. Barely seconds into talking to Mr. Yakubu, he would ask, “How is our madam, Mariam,” or “Is Mariam not around?” Mr. Yakubu never suspected any foul play. He never imagined the possibility of his friend sleeping with his wife. Mr. Ahmadu was roughly the same age as Mr. Yakubu, but he was taller, much fitter, and his voice had a booming depth. When he had conversations with Mr. Yakubu, they usually complained about the perils of their electronics businesses and dishonest apprentices that had worked under them in the past. He would rub a 12 year old Hakeem’s head and call him ‘Yakubu Yaro,’ little Yakubu. One day, when Mr. Yakubu was absent, he came visiting. A few weeks later, when his newfound fascination with GSMs led him to go through his mother’s without her permission, Hakeem found text messages that his mother and Mr. Ahmadu had been sending to each other. I’m missing your hands, Ahmadu; Come over after work; If only our kisses could linger longer. He never spoke to his mother about the messages, one of which taught him the word ‘linger.’
The first person Hakeem looked out for when he walked into Aunty Zainab’s sitting room was his mother. There she was, sitting on the couch, with a bruise on her cheek. Hakeem rushed in her direction and sat by her. His eyes were darting around her body, checking to make sure she didn’t have any other injuries. “You didn’t have to come, my son.” Aunty Zainab excused them at her sister’s request. “But Mummy, why?” asked a visibly distraught Hakeem. He told her about the messages he had seen ten years earlier, and she told him the fling only lasted a month. Someone had dug up some dirt on her. Someone had informed her husband, but she didn’t know who. “It was a difficult period for me. Hakeem, your father was sleeping with a new woman almost every other night. He still is. He wouldn’t touch me in bed. He was like a stranger. Walahi. Ahmadu came at a time when I was vulnerable. I just gave in.” She spoke softly like a remorseful child, avoiding eye contact. After Hakeem had bathed and settled, she asked him if he had gotten a girlfriend. She was now smiling and Hakeem felt a soothing breeze of fulfilment because he knew his presence had lifted her spirits. His mother was used to the playful inquisition causing an abashed expression on his face, and she was also used to not getting a response from him. “I think there’s someone,” he answered for the first time.
* * *
FOR ALL ITS BUSLE, Benin also had an air of mystery. Folklore told the young ones stories of giants who swept their houses with trees. Modern myths were generally recognised as facts however illogical they seemed and customs were revered with a respect that bordered on fear itself. There always seemed to be the presence of something mysterious swirling in the dense air. Hakeem, who was waiting for Ovie to pick him up at Ring Road, hid from the scorching heat by settling under a small shade with a zinc roof where a woman sold second-hand clothes and shoes that reeked of camphor. A woman was with them devotedly selecting shirts and shorts for her toddler son who seemed uninterested. The woman particularly liked a black shirt with ‘Riverside High School West Virginia Class of 2006’ printed in front of it. There was an Hausa man in a jalabiya on the sidewalk trying to convince passers-by to buy his ‘original’ gold chain. A middle-aged man who had his eyes firmly fixed ahead walked past Hakeem with a startling urgency. He was holding a folder and his belt had missed a loop on his trousers. He had the air of someone who was starved of time; the air of someone doomed to be in an endless hurry.
As Ovie drove off in Peter’s Kia Element, Hakeem watched the magic show from the passenger seat. Through the cluster of people, he could see the magician sitting on a mat with an assortment of mobile phones in front of him. Hakeem recalled what Indomie told him about a man who requested that the magician make a laptop with a Windows 8 OS from a specific shop appear. Indomie claimed to see the magician reach into a brown carton and bring out the laptop with the requested shop’s sticker on it. A guy in banking and finance also claimed to have been there that day. Hakeem found himself wondering why he had never experienced or felt anything that undoubtedly defied the laws of nature. He had never collapsed to the floor from getting his forehead tapped by his pastor. He had never seen a flying witch fall from the sky. He had never seen mobile phones with data subscription appear from thin air.
Right in the middle of stagnant traffic, a stranger emerged from seemingly nowhere with a bucket and a squeegee. Without any hesitation or permission, he emptied the soapy water in the bucket on the car’s windshield and started washing it with the squeegee. Ovie wasn’t sure what to make of the unsolicited service which would require him to politely compensate the stranger. There was a woman with a baby rested on her shoulder outside Hakeem’s window begging for money. She softly patted the sleeping baby on the back while pleading with the baby to stop crying. Hakeem felt a sudden and surprisingly intense dislike for the woman for trying to play on his intelligence with such a terribly contrived gimmick. As the traffic started to slowly move, the woman paced along defiantly, trying harder to pull his heart strings. She was leaning in a little too much, so Hakeem rolled up his window. When she realised she was chasing a lost cause, she began to hurl insults at him. Even as traffic moved faster and faster, she chased after the car solely for the purpose of raining as much abuse as she could on a surprised Hakeem who could only watch in amazement.
After the car had long lost the pathological beggar, Hakeem opened his Facebook. Cedric Icey Swagg had updated his status to ‘Simplicity is the best swagg #SwaggLife.’ Malaysia Billionz had posted a photo of himself in a presumed hotel room lounging on a bed with a laptop by his side captioned ‘More confirmation on the way. To God be the glory.’ Hakeem plugged the car charger in the phone and adjusted his seat back. Ovie rolled down his window and turned off the AC. A passing truck’s fumes wasted no time in welcoming them back from their shielded reality.
There was something noticeably off about the way Mrs. Alade looked at Regina who was walking towards her. The smile Regina was accustomed to seeing was missing. In place of the smile was a hostile leer. Regina sat on the tall stool in front of the enclosed lobby desk, watching Mrs. Alade give her monosyllabic responses and dismissive shrugs. Regina controlled the urge to ask her what she had done wrong to warrant the hostility. Jane, who was widely regarded as the most beautiful girl in the faculty of basic and applied sciences, briskly walked by. She was doused in perfume and her hips swung with an unnecessary exaggeration as she walked past them and out into the night. Regina noticed the way Mrs. Alade was looking at Jane was identical to the look she herself had been getting from Mrs. Alade that night. The look of desire entwined with disgust. Regina realised she was wearing heavy makeup and a loose tank top which exposed the sides of her bra. The disappointment she usually felt anytime she let someone expectant down clouded her concentration. “Ma, I thank God for Mrs. Ngozi’s assignment. I scored 20 over 20,” said Regina, trying to remind Mrs. Alade of the academic prowess and fear of God which she thought made the woman fall in love with her in the first place. “So what? Isn’t that your job? Isn’t that what is expected of you? You better focus instead of going around bragging about your past accomplishments,” responded Mrs. Alade with widened eyes and a flared nose. In those five minutes she’d been there, Regina felt as though she was in the presence of a stranger. She thought about going back upstairs, throwing on a gown, and wiping off all the paint on her face. She also thought about the consequences of stepping out without a cosmetic layer. She heard the buzz of her phone. It was a WhatsApp message from Hakeem: i’m back, babe. should be at the school gate in ten minutes. She stood up and walked out the dorm gate which was lit by a lamp post, feeling Mrs. Alade’s condemning eyes prick her back the whole time. “Baby girl, your makeup is on fleek,” said a girl who was walking in the opposite direction. An abashed smile appeared on Regina’s face, and her eyes glowed with satisfaction as she basked in the validation of a complete stranger.
Hakeem played Mo Gbono Feli Feli on the car stereo while he glided along Airport Road with Regina in the passenger seat. They were alone in the Kia. They simultaneously laughed the instant where D’banj claimed he made 10 million in a week came up. No one ever seemed to be believe his grand declaration. There was something about Hakeem’s presence that convinced Regina that it was OK to set herself free. She could bite her nails and drum on puffed cheeks if she felt like it. He switched to a FM radio station where a lady was reviewing a film with an awkward American accent that occasionally sounded Cockney. “It’s like having an American accent is now a requirement to work as an entertainment OAP nowadays, especially if you’re female,” said Hakeem. He always had an opinion on countless topics ranging from the evolution of man to the enigma that is Young Thug. She never saw him reading newspapers or grave-old books with hard covers, but he always seemed to be in the know to some extent. This intensified her attraction towards him. They stopped by a suya spot where Hakeem starting speaking Hausa to the seller who quickly stopped him and informed them he was Igbo to their amusement. They sat on the suya man’s bench and ate the spicy cow meat while Regina teased Hakeem for sweating from his nose. She looked at the barbershop with the noisy generator behind them. By the entrance, there was a boy and a girl who looked like ten year-olds seated on the concrete pavement. Hakeem looked back and saw what she was looking at. After a short while, Regina looked back at Hakeem who already had his eyes on her. They shared a smile of mutual cognisance; cognisance so significant to them, but oblivious to the rest of the world.